Agility Depends on Your Ability to Learn

Guest Blog

I’m pleased to have Anders Ingerstedt, founding partner of Colabpro Outsourcing Ltd, as a guest blogger today.

Agile is a buzzword. It is replicating and spreading into new domains beyond technology and software development, where it originated. Agility is — no denials accepted — a good capacity in any corporate environment, as it depends upon learning. Firms struggle to be more agile in every sense powered by a rapidly changing business landscape.

What was the truth six months ago may not be truth today. As small firms encounter global competition, no idea, concept or patent is a safe path to win the favour of customers. The dynamics of the free flow of information, available in every corner of the earth, requires new approaches and new standards. It is all about learning and agility.

Where It All Began

Lean manufacturing is a concept widely accepted and implemented in competitive manufacturing companies of today. Without principles from Kanban, for example, just-in-time systems would not exist. Kanban is an agile technique that can be used in more circumstances than just manufacturing. It proves that agile thinking and principles have merit.

“Agile” is a word that has become associated with technology development, specifically software, and has become confined to that environment. That is a big mistake and I will try to explain why.

In software development, stakeholders learned that they rarely got what they needed, back in the 1980’s. As a result, driven managers started to reorganise priorities, often clashing with corporate hierarchies. They focused on the most important items needed to satisfy the customer. That approach turned into a practice called “prototyping” and included frequent demonstrations of the product. This enabled the customer to influence the developers and the product. Learning was enabled and the final result improved.

Software development is performed by highly capable and intelligent individuals, who know what to do. They are aware of corporate goals and customer needs. The complexity of software development and the urge to deliver useful applications drove a group of engineers to define, document and develop practices that help to overcome the complex demands of adaptability in a rapidly changing landscape.

Where Are We Now

That was 20 years ago. The corporate challenge to adapt to the dynamics of a changing landscape has not been met in any sense. Processes and documentation are prevailing institutions in any enterprise, and it is clear to me that they are losing. The reasons are the inability to learn from the past that is embedded in strictly described process thinking.

By the thousands and increasing, new firms are developing with new ideas, challenging every aspect of the established corporate market. What was a safe market share yesterday is not so today. The new information sources made available to customers disrupt old patterns and put the customer in the centre, not the shareholder. This is a major shift — now evident — smaller firms have a built-in learning capability.

Big firms who rely on established thinking are less able to learn since it is one of the purposes of establishing a process. Furthermore, separate processes are commonly established to provide the learning and thus censor the real experience, effectively preventing any useful feedback. Thus, adaptation to quick changes in market conditions will not be reflected.

Agile as the term in software development is growing rapidly outside of technology and the new CIOs understand that agility is necessary to create competitive product solutions that are more attractive to customers than the basic engineered offerings. Firms like SKF, Atlas Copco and Sandvik, promote their products with apps available on a tablet. The next step is integration with the hardware they produce. Clients are increasingly looking for solutions and less for items.

The answer to this demand is software. Almost everything sold today has a component of information technology in it, and that component will not decrease. The ability to learn and adapt to new settings requires an agile mind-set — a learning mind-set.

Software development is a complex process, and as such it has evolved over 40 years into orders that help to simplify and improve, by learning. The practices established over the past decades prove that complex processes can be managed to success.

I believe some of the most profound impacts of not being able to learn are shown by firms like:

  • HP
  • Kodak
  • Microsoft
  • Nokia

They are stagnating companies, struggling with learning about new market conditions and seemingly unable to learn and adapt. The list can be made much longer.

Agility is not a state, it’s a mind-set.

Upspring challengers to corporate giants are very agile today. They use completely different approaches in terms of supply chain, administration, manufacturing, strategy and corporate culture.

These companies hire the team players they believe can learn, not the MBAs who believe they know everything already. These companies believe in the capacity of the empowered individual together with accountability, not the theoretical credentials that assume capability. Ability and willingness to learn are becoming much more important, as is the corporate culture of allowing for failure.

I argue that the ability and willingness to learn by experience and failure is the most important item on the path to becoming agile. The willingness to accept failure as a way of learning, the breakup from strict process controlled behaviour, the power to try and fail and then try again, and succeed — that is agile.

Please visit Anders’ blogs to read more of his thought-provoking articles.



‘Learn’ photo credit: Mark Brannan via photopin cc

Updated: January 7, 2013 — 9:20 pm


  1. Nokia invented the Scrum test right?


    1. Well, I don’t know about that, but what we both know is that Nokia have declined from being a market leader to a position of a desperate follower. I argue that they got a lot of things right when the world was slower. As the pace increased they failed to learn and thus to evolve by innovation.

      At a Stockholm conference in end 2008 a key R&D executive was provoked by the moderator on what would be the next stellar product from Nokia. He was silent too long before answering.

      You can guess that the impact of that answer wasn’t increasing the urge to buy Nokia stock…

  2. I guess my point is, that despite being heavily involved in, and in fact, a leader of, the Scrum community, it certainly didn’t seem to help Nokia that much.


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